Thanks be that for those occasions, there’s that bigger, better word! Halleluiah! Or, depending on the dictionary you choose, hallelujah. Or, again, hallelulia. Or even Alleluia.
But, as the contributors to this issue’s Short Takes know, even praise can have inflections. Turns out the word Halleluiah has as many connotations as it does spellings.
There’s the one we think of as the good old New Testament meaning: Hey, great news, Everybody! Something seriously spiritually religiously stupendous has happened! Such a neat, keen, glorious Something that we won’t even be able to describe it with sufficient emotional oomph until Handel gets hold of it 17 centuries from now, and makes it sound like:
Although, frankly, even in Handel, it’s a bit faux. Here’s this paean of praise that erupts, in more and less bearable versions, every Christmas, in an oratorio that became the epitome of crowd-sourcing even before there was crowd-sourcing. And it isn’t even about the event Christmas is meant to celebrate. Handel’s Halleluiah is about the end of Jesus’ life, not the beginning, so why has it been sung – and sung and sung – at Christmas instead of at Easter?
Handel probably didn’t know that his use of the word to illustrate that surge of joy, purportedly felt by the friends and family who discovered a mercifully emptied tomb, was an anachronism. It was never uttered, not by any of them, not even by those who wrote the New Testament bios in which the Golgotha scene appears. It does occur in the Bible, but in Psalms, and then again in Revelations, but in neither place in anything like this context.
Still, the word has power. As Handel knew. And no musician understood that better than Leonard Cohen, the next major composer after Handel to harness the dramatic effect you get just by singing the word over and over, backed by lots of instruments, as in:
But Cohen also got the irony. The double edged ambiguity of it. His Hallelujah (as he spells it) is not an unmitigated whoop of joy. It is much darker:
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah
I suppose if we can say Hallelujah to anything, it might be that Cohen’s version is not yet corrupted by the millions of amateur choruses that will mangle (and, okay, sometimes bring new glory to) Handel’s chorus again this season, though a generation of wedding singers has no doubt done its own kinds of damage to Cohen’s music.
Our contributors are more complex than either Handel or Cohen. Their approach is not the Handelian full-throated song of pure rejoicing. They know life is too complicated for that. But neither are they so unrelievedly morose as Cohen. They are alive to the small joys that stud life’s path like tiny stars in a dark nighttime sky. And so, as we read them, we breathe a small, almost silent Halleluiah.
Balanced by Light
Weekends were endless, the hardest hours to endure after I came home from Guatemala in October 1992 without the infant I had traveled there to adopt. Six weeks later, I was still staring out the kitchen window. The dull pewter light of November mirrored my spirit. When a snow squall blew up on an empty Sunday afternoon, I was drawn out into the back yard. I felt safe there, hidden from view by red brick garage walls while the wind swayed in the branches of a weeping cherry tree that hung over the iron fence separating our home from the fine stone house around the corner.
I turned my face up to the sky and stuck out my tongue to taste the first snow of the season. Without thinking, I lifted my arms and twirled, as if I were a girl again. Thick flakes clung briefly to my eyelashes and shoulders before vanishing. Joy shuddered down my spine.
Sometimes shadows are balanced by light.
The day before that quick snowstorm, four miles away from our home in Philadelphia, a newborn had come too fast for a C-section. A few hours later, his grandmother said, “No. I can’t take on another one. Not at my age.”
If his uncles were asked for help, they weren’t able to provide it. His mother signed the papers before she was discharged.
He didn’t know she was gone. He spent most of his time asleep, isolated in the N.I.C.U., while antibiotics trickled through IVs that left scars on the back of his hands. Instead of lullabies, he heard the beeps and clicks of monitors. The voices of strangers murmured in his ears, gently welcoming him to this life.
All adoptions begin in loss. Our son’s birth mother gave him up on a chilly Sunday afternoon when he was one day old. Sometimes I imagine she signed the papers at the exact instant when I opened my arms to the snow swirling around me. I like to think we were connected to the universe and each other. Although he didn’t come to us for fifteen more days, it could be that in the midst of that squall, he was entrusted to our care. A quarter century later, it is still a moment filled with grace.
The first time I bumped into Hallelujah in a visceral way, I was eight – vulnerable and easily smitten. Our music teacher Miss Ball was one of my many image-of-God figures — worthy of worship. She was tall, bunched her straw-colored hair in a net tucked tight to her neck, had a baton we all obeyed, sang to us like angels do, and made solemn promises we trusted.
Miss Ball promised that if our all-girls chorus practiced our soul-notes – the ones that came from the bottom of our bellies, not our throats – we could sing The Hallelujah Chorus at the Christmas concert. She sang us a few hallelujahs. She was an alto. So was I.
“This is the music of heaven by a prodigiously famous composer named Handel, girls,” she said. I didn’t know what prodigiously meant but I fervently practiced my soul-notes at home. I didn’t know what heaven was either, but I was sure Miss Ball was a prime candidate.
Hallelujah, according to Miss Ball, was a breathy word from the Hebrew word hallel – praise. “Close your eyes tight and imagine the brightest light you can.” I squished my eyes tight and envisioned the huge square flashlight my father used when we had air raids in New York City. He held the light while I raced around to pull down all the black shades so no bomb would fall on us. “Now open your mouths and let that light shine in your voices, like this. Ah-lay-looo-ya, silent H.” We girls were securely under Miss Ball’s spell. I didn’t know who wanted this Hallelujah more, me or Miss Ball.
We practiced like mad, singing wide-mouthed ahs and ooohs and las and yahs. I could tell Miss Ball wasn’t at all sure how this whopping choral piece would come off. But it was printed on the program; parents and God would be in attendance, so we were ready.
Hallelujah night arrived. Breathless, we stood in our rows, spiffed in white blouses and navy blue skirts, waiting. What if Miss Ball was late? Then she swept in like Loretta Young on television. My eyes popped wide open – wonderstruck. Miss Ball’s hair had escaped its net. Out it tumbled. It billowed magically in waves. She picked up her baton and tapped the music stand, shining upon us a grin of blinding radiance.
Halleluia. Halleluia. Halleluia.Halleluia. Ha-la’ay-loo-yah. We shone with praise.
Everyone stood then clapped for us – maybe for God, or Handel. Even Miss Ball applauded us. We took our bows.
All this happened just before Christmas vacation. That year Hallelujah surpassed even Santa Claus. All through the Christmas vacation I walked around singing my alto part out loud.
After vacation I was eager to see Miss Ball – and get more praise. Instead, she grinned and announced that we all should now call her Mrs. Davis.
I want to participate more in Strawberry Lodge — you know, that senior facility where I live. I just get so wrapped up in my own projects – finish one, then there’s another art project – that I forget about making friends. I did go out and participate in a demonstration against drones though – U.S. killing innocent civilians in other countries, cops wanting to spy on us from the air. That made me feel good, getting back into my old Berkeley activism. I guess that’s the problem. I don’t want to be a drone in my old age, just buzzing around by myself, on my own mission without any thought for anyone else.
On New Year’s Eve there was a dance at the Lodge. Can you believe it? All of us old farts dressed up in our ’60s sparkles, flapping our arms and legs around, at least those of us without canes or wheelchairs. I know from my white hair and rimless glasses I usually look like I’m a staid librarian or even a former nun – I hate that one – but I can still dance. And I’m pretty wild once I get going. I love it! I could see people looking at me with appreciation, even lust in some of those old duffers’ eyes, if not envy. But then I got back to my room alone, and the examination of conscience set in. I didn’t like myself at that moment. There I was, on my own mission downstairs, just a drone controlled by my ego, trying to get attention for my body, for God’s sake, at my age!
I tried to calm down, but then I caught a glimpse of myself in my full-length mirror, my one concession to vanity in my 10’ by 12’ room – my sparkly orange top, my long purple flared Indian skirt, my sequined red shoes, and thought, I look great! I twirled around, did one of my boogaloo moves, and decided to go back downstairs and dance till midnight.
Gospel Singer Next Door
with a voice bigger than God
and a bus bigger than Jesus.
The Statesmen Quartet
it said on the side,
its gold script as shiny
as a gospel singer’s necklace
on a sunny Atlanta afternoon.
When it pulled in the driveway,
the Big Chief’s wife rejoiced.
Her boys were back,
sweaty sharkskin suits
all spent from Hallelujahs.
“They’ve been on the road too long,”
she’d say in a whisper,
like she’d lent her own voice to the Big Chief
in case he needed it for a demon drop Rock of Ages.
We were awed.
a number-crunching accountant
who just couldn’t fathom Jesus rising from the dead,
at the Big Chief’s voice.
Many a hot summer night, windows open,
we heard it —
first the crickets and then the Voice
plunging down and down and down
to the chorus of This Ole House,
to which daddy, dressed in striped pajamas,
would prance around
and mouth the words, chin on chest,
stepping up and up and up
all the way to heaven.
Miami was sweltering that afternoon, with a temperature hovering at 98 degrees. Heat can bring out the crazies. Or create them. The old woman gestured dramatically as she crossed the street, waving her arms wildly and dancing a half-assed jig, then twirling as she reached the other side. Singing loudly to nobody, she flailed her apparently jointless and boneless arms. They settled into sporadic jerks as her legs moved into an equally disjointed version of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. She stopped her dancing on the edge of a park. Even without moving, she drew attention. The shabby, dirty clothes, her floppy hat and long straggly hair and wild-woman gestures screamed out homeless and loony-tunes. Most people walked past, barely giving her a second glance, but several passers-by moved off the sidewalk to avoid her.
A young woman sat on a nearby bench holding a newspaper. She was tired and hot, her head throbbing to the point of exploding and at that moment she desperately craved air conditioning and an iced coffee with more ice than coffee. But she had a job to complete before she could get either.
Alicia deVesquez had moved from New York to Miami to be closer to family. She was more than thankful to have found a receptionist job for a small agency. She expected Miami to be hot but what she hadn’t expected was a job necessitating sitting under the broiling sun, as she turned into a giant sweat ball. It wasn’t just the heat – it was the humidity that was doing her in. But a job’s a job and she needed hers, so she sat there, observing the scene playing out before her.
She watched as two beat cops approached the old woman. She noticed that the cops didn’t get too close as they looked her over, but as the old lady talked to them, they began to laugh. A few moments later they walked away, still laughing and shaking their heads.
Hallelujah! Alicia looked at her watch. Her day was almost over. Mission accomplished. She rose and approached the old woman who stood, watching and waiting.
Alicia smiled and held out her hand. “I’m Alicia deVesquez, from the agency. We’ve spoken a few times.”
The woman took Alicia’s hand, and shook it firmly. “I’m Tina Machesney. Nice to finally meet you.”
Alicia looked more closely at Tina. She’d done a good job with the makeup. “You sure as hell convinced me you’re nuttier than pecan pie, and even more impressive, you fooled those cops. The part’s yours if you want it.”
Tina grinned. “Mercy, I certainly do. So tomorrow my agent can give the agency a call?” Alicia nodded.
“Thank goodness I can finally take off this wig.” With that, Tina whipped off the hat and wig, turned and began walking away, her arms waving in the air as she sauntered down the sidewalk singing “Hallelujah, I’m a bum, Hallelujah, bum again.”
Hurrah for the Man in a Hurry
Mohamed bin Salman, the new crown prince of Saudi Arabia, is a man in a hurry. Having placed a hundred or so opponents, including cousins and ministers, under house arrest in an anti-corruption purge, he promises a wide raft of reforms. These include giving women citizens the right to dispense with the consent of a male guardian for certain formalities in public life and, most importantly, the right to drive a car.
To us in the West, passing a driving test and driving a car are basic human freedoms.
Yet before we stand Pharisee-like in judgment on the Saudis, we should remember our own recent history. In the run-up to the First World War, most English people were hostile to the suffragettes. Earnest discussions in politicians’ drawing rooms having got them nowhere, the suffragettes took to the streets, smashing windows and chaining themselves to railings. When the courts ordered the ringleaders force-fed in prison, the country muttered, “Serves them right.”
Despite Parliament giving women the vote in 1928, despite women’s invaluable work in two world wars, change was slow to come. A mere fifty years ago, male contempt for women’s role in life infected the land. Jilly Cooper, no shrinking violet, recently reprinted extracts from her book of advice for young wives, published in the late ’60s.
With hindsight, it beggars belief that an intelligent journalist should advise her peers to re-organise their work schedules to leave work an hour before their husband left his. Supposedly that would allow a wife to run herself ragged buying the ingredients to cook the husband’s supper, and still reach home in time to change into a sexy outfit and seduce him when he arrived. Jilly Cooper did not practice what she preached, but the book sold. Those of us who came of age in the ’60s still remember the assumption by the men in our lives that, once married, they would not need to lift a finger. Cooking, laundry, cleaning: despite having jobs, we were supposed to wave a magic wand and make it happen, offstage. It took the Equal Pay Act and other legislation to improve women’s lot in life.
Like the mass of women in Edwardian society who disapproved of brazen suffragettes, the majority of Saudi women are comfortable with the status quo because they are used to it. In offering younger women the freedom to collect their children from school, or pop out for some shopping, Prince Mohamed is gambling that change will be peaceful and positive. Good luck to him.
You’re Too Old For That
Don’t be silly. You’re too old for that.
Well then, hang glide.
Are you kidding? You are way too old for that!
Okay, then, smarty, what am I not too old for?
Let’s see. You can be a passenger on an airplane.
Oh, come on! Anybody can do that. Babies, people in wheelchairs, little old ladies pushing 100.
Yes, but they can still die if the plane crashes.
So then, what difference does it make if I skydive at my age, huh?
You’re just too old for it. Your bones are brittle…
Only a little…
Your eyesight is poor…
Not when I wear my glasses…
Your hearing is going…
No, I heard you. Why are you so negative? Besides, you’re saying things about me that aren’t true. And even if they were, I could still tandem-skydive. Look at old President George Bush. He’s gotta be brittle and nearly blind and partially deaf…
Don’t disrespect a former President!
Okay, sorry. But he really is old. A lot older than I am. So if he can do it, why can’t I? Why can’t I hang glide? Why can’t I bungee jump? Why can’t I be shot out of a cannon? Why can’t I jump off the top of a fuckin’ mountain if I want to?
Are you listening to yourself? On top of being old, you’re suffering from dementia!
That does it. I’m not getting sucked into arguing with you anymore. You just watch. I’m going to live like I’m twenty again. Hooray for me!
And with that I turned away from the mirror and left the bathroom.